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Fish farming and the green gap

Richard Black | 14:45 UK time, Tuesday, 3 March 2009

There's a bit of a spat going on in the activist community now over fish-farming.

It's a new arena for a familiar argument; should green groups engage with something that on balance they'd rather not have around, or should they simply campaign against it?

Fish farm

The immediate focus is WWF's recent announcement that it's co-founding a new organisation, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council, that will eventually develop global standards for an industry that at its worst could serve as a dictionary definition of the term "unsustainable".

WWF's rationale is that the industry is here to stay - the Earth's growing number of mouths needs it - so it's imperative to get involved with businesses and regulators and spread best practices across the world.

A coalition of other NGOs disagrees. "We believe that these attempts at certification are funded and industry driven," they say, arguing that the proposed sustainability standards endorse techniques that are inherently unsustainable, and that the concerns of local peoples and indigenous groups are being ignored.

We've seen similar argument played out over many issues, including the greenhouse gas emissions of energy companies and various aspects of farming.

But perhaps the best recent analogy is the palm oil industry, which WWF chooses to work with, not least through the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil - a body that Greenpeace dismisses as "little more than a greenwashing operation".

Farmed fish

On aquaculture, it's an increasingly important argument; because as a major report just released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) makes clear, the industry is set to spread into ever more waterways and supply more ever more food in the years to come.

The industry now provides almost half of the fish that we eat. And with just over half of the world's wild fisheries classed as "fully exploited" and a further 20% "depleted", it seems clear that if the coming extra billions of humans are to eat fish and other marine products at the same rate that we do now, the majority is going to have to come from aquaculture.

The FAO's State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report also concludes that wild catches are likely to go down rather than up as the climate changes. Warming waters will push species from their natural environs, it suggests, perhaps separating fish from their habitual food or disrupting the breeding cycle; and ocean acidification also poses threats.

At its worst, aquaculture is an absolute bane; it pollutes, spreads disease into wild populations, and reduces the health of wild stocks through escapes and interbreeding. The natural defences of mangroves are cleared for shrimp ponds that quickly leave soils saline and barren, and fish that could feed poorer mouths are minced up to fatten the carnivorous species to which western palates seem umbilically attached.

At its best, though, it is a benign and placid business providing local employment and local nutrition, with minimal ecological impacts.

Regulators, environmental groups and scientists all have roles to play if the industry is to improve its overall performance.

Scientists can find vegetable-based substitute feeds for carnivorous fish (research that is well underway at the moment, and not before time, with fish farms consuming 85% of the fish oil produced globally).

In conjunction with business leaders, scientists can also look for ways to run the farms symbiotically, so the waste from one product becomes food for another - something that is already being developed, not least in China, which possesses by far the world's biggest aquaculture industry.

And environmental groups? They can play several roles, I would suggest; keeping regulators honest, consulting on ecological standards, and helping to shape the market so consumers become keener to eat species with a lighter environmental footprint.

Whether they can better achieve those ambitions from inside or outside of the tent is for each group to decide; and perhaps there's merit in having a bit of both.

Aquaculture isn't growing as fast as it was a decade ago - partly because of increasing pressure on China's waterways - and the FAO reckons governments will need to nurdle the industry along if its output is to increase in line with projected demand.

So there's clearly an opportunity to nurdle it in a direction that's environmentally as well as financially sound.

It's important that all the major players get it right. As a species, we will increasingly depend on the food that aquaculturists provide; but we also depend on them leaving behind lakes, rivers and seas that are fit for us and the rest of the Earth's inhabitants to use.

PS Click here for a pop-up picture gallery of future fish food.

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